ON AUGUST 17, 1667 (or 343 years ago today), Fr. Luis Diego de Sanvitores, SJ and his group sailed for the Marianas to establish a Spanish colony and preach Christianity to the Chamorro natives. (The Marianas include the islands Guam and Saipan.)
Instead of sailing directly to the Marianas, they first hitched a ride on the regular galleon trip to Acapulco, Mexico, where they would stay for a while to recuperate and pick up supplies. The Manila-Acapulco trip lasted about six months (August to March).
Then they took another galleon, this time from Acapulco to Manila. They got off when they passed by the Marianas, in June 1668.
As soon as they landed on the shore, Felipe Sonsong made a little scene when he suddenly threw himself at the feet of Sanvitores, begging him not to hesitate assigning him any task, including the most difficult ones, even if it meant shedding his blood, as long as it would help in the conversion of the islanders.
Sanvitores instead gave him the task of “arranging and adorning” the missionaries’ living quarters and chapel.
Sonsong sewed “pieces of colored sinamay cloth for the ornaments and hangings of the altar,” wrote Fr. Bustillo, SJ in an eyewitness account. He also created outfits “to cover the nakedness” of Quipuja, the village chief of Agana, and the other natives. (If and when Sonsong is canonized, fashion designers, tailors, interior decorators and production designers can make him their patron saint.)
The Chamorros were actually quite civilized; they had massive stone monuments (similar to those on Easter Island) and they spoke Austronesian dialects (they had words like matua, matapang and duende), but they kept and worshipped their ancestors’ skulls and a number of them were sexually promiscuous.
The first big religious celebration on the island was the procession on the feast of Corpus Christi, which was attended by hundreds of Chamorros. The sight moved Sonsong so much that when he returned to his room he began sewing and mending the clothes of the missionaries and all their lay companions, as well as making rosaries for the newly baptized Chamorros.
The following year, after the islanders constructed a larger chapel for the missionaries, Sonsong built its sanctuary with “boards hewed from coconut trees more than a vara in width (vara is a Spanish measurement equivalent to 84 cm).”
He decorated the retablo with holy pictures which he himself had framed on canvases. The retablo, according to Fr. Bustillo, “was quite beautiful for this land.” It had the images of Our Lady and St. John the Baptist, the designated patron saint of the island (because they had arrived there on his feast day.)
Sanvitores dedicated the new church to the Holy Name of Mary (hence, Marianas) on February 2, feast of the Purification of Our Lady.
Sonsong also constructed a second floor on the missionaries’ living quarters.
Afterwards, he went to see Sanvitores, throwing himself on the ground as usual. Sonsong sobbed and begged the priest to allow him to be admitted to the Jesuit Order as a lay brother (donado), which meant formally taking the Jesuit vows and wearing the Jesuit garb (without actually becoming a priest).
Sanvitores gently told him there was no need for it since Sonsong was already a Jesuit “interiorly.” The priest then took the opportunity to advice the 58-year-old Kapampangan to go easy on “his penances, disciplines and hairshirt (a coarse undergarment made of animal hair)” which the priest considered severe for Sonsong’s age and an added burden to his already heavy workload.
Sonsong “submitted to everything without the least disagreement, though he regretted being deprived of the practice of the penances. But he sacrificed his own will to God.”
As the feast of Pentecost neared, Sonsong once again prostrated himself at the feet of Sanvitores “with his eyes bathed in tears,” and once more asked to be admitted to the Society of Jesus. But Sanvitores again replied that “this had already been done interiorly and there was no need for it since God had already accepted the oblation of his submissive will and good intention.”
Sonsong, however, persisted. Describing himself “a vile little worm,” he told Sanvitores that even slaves wore the insignia and uniform of their masters. “Although I don’t deserve it,” he said, “still it befits the generosity of masters to grant it to the slave who is proud to be a slave of such a master and who, as a sign of his fidelity and desire to serve until death, earnestly requests it.”
Compelled by his “fondness” for Sonsong and Sonsong’s “convincing reasons, spoken with such feeling,” Sanvitores embraced him and promised to decide on it on Pentecost day. With that, Sonsong kissed the priest’s hand and once again “retired to his little corner.”
On the eve of Pentecost, Sanvitores summoned Sonsong and told him in advance to just kneel instead of prostrating himself as usual. The priest then “blessed a kind of sotana (cossack or surplice), of narrower collar and much shorter than that which the religious use, together with a cincture (cord or sash).” He helped Sonsong put it on.
Sonsong “was filled with emotion and fervor, as may be imagined, for this singular gift the Lord was making to him, and because he now saw fulfilled his great yearnings and desires.”
The next day, on the feast of Pentecost, the joy with which Sonsong received Holy Communion “was quite extraordinary.”
“From that day on,” wrote Fr. Bustillo, “he was more and more humble, placing himself below everyone as being the most vile creature in the world, acquiring more and more virtues of all kinds in accordance with his humble state, which edified all of us who knew him.”
Fr. Bustillo then wrote, “I will say something about all those virtues though it will not be possible to say everything, for they will require a better pen than mine.” (More next week)